Think of the earliest image of a doctor in a mask, and chances are it will send a chill down your spine. In the 17th century, plague doctors could be mistaken for grim reapers. The elaborate black robes worn by them were accentuated by ‘beak-like’ masks. Perforated on the sides, these masks would be filled with herbs, like lavender and peppermint, to protect them from ‘bad smells’. This is, arguably, the most striking image of the face mask, which has been lampooned many times. Some even contend, albeit lightheartedly, it was the fear of being treated by the plague doctor that made many nervous, and hence more vulnerable.
Three centuries and many tweaks later, masks are back on our faces and have become a definitive symbol of life during novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19). During a pandemic that has claimed lives and livelihoods, a mask is the safest accessory, but its efficacy and use have not gone unchallenged. From being deemed dispensable in the early months of the pandemic to being seen as a tool of intimidation to spawning its own fashion trend, the face mask has had quite a journey in 2020.
The mask has been the most visible symbol of our transition to the ‘new normal’. If some were still in denial, it didn’t help that international bodies remained in two minds about the efficacy of the mask. A statement by Dr Mike Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) health emergencies programme, is often quoted to present a case against wearing masks where he reportedly suggested “there is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit”. What the sceptics tended to omit from that statement was the context. As the WHO declared the pandemic, the awareness grew among the masses, and healthcare providers were faced with a shortage of masks, especially N-95. The aim back then had been to supply masks to doctors, nurses and other health workers in direct contact with Covid-19 patients. The rationing was necessary to avoid hoarding and actually provide masks to those who had been working on the frontline. It wasn’t until manufacturers ramped up production that this shortage was addressed.
An article in the science journal The Lancet also noted how the increased production of disposable masks had enabled a ‘throwaway culture’, which was, in turn, counterproductive. “Reusable masks were once an essential part of the medical arsenal. However, the industrial production and further research and development of reusable masks was largely halted with the transition towards disposable masks in the 1960s. Disposable masks and respirators will certainly remain an essential part of medical personal protective equipment in the future, since some of them possess specific filtration qualities designed for healthcare situations. To avoid a shortage of masks during the next pandemic, one should look beyond the creation of large stockpiles of disposable face masks and consider the risks of the throwaway consumer culture applied to life-saving devices. Perhaps one day, it might again be possible to say about protective face masks what medical researchers wrote in 1918: ‘A mask may be repeatedly washed and used indefinitely,’” it said.
The other major roadblock was the psychological one — how to protect people from their own prejudices. Paranoia, combined with conspiracy theories, can often be recipe for disaster. So, when some reliable voices in international domain suggested that wearing the masks could even be counterproductive, those flames were fanned further. Add to that, well-known figures expressing their own doubts. In June, for instance, former Major League Baseball player Aubrey Huff took to Twitter to write, ““I will no longer wear a mask inside any business. It’s unconstitutional to enforce. Let’s make this b******t stop now. Who’s with me?”. A barrage of critical, even borderline hateful, tweets posted in response only cemented a resentment against mask-wearing.
If these challenges weren’t enough, our vanities took a hit too. With the mask, came maskne, and a new dermatological concern about protecting the skin from the mask’s texture became a talking point.
The odds were stacked up against the mask. It wasn’t until asymptomatic cases became an issue that many realised the importance of covering up. The idea that a seemingly healthy person could also be a carrier and infect others was enough to make even its fierce critics don the mask.
To a generation that had never witnessed a pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918 became a reference point. An article in Washington Post quoted generously from historian John M. Barry’s book The Great Influenza to drive home the point. “Often, Red Cross chapters fashioned and distributed the masks that were seen everywhere and would become a symbol of the epidemic. If directed to wear a mask, homemade worked. ‘Take a piece of gauze the size of a sheet of typewriter paper,’ said instructions in the Atlanta Constitution. ‘Fold it twice, so that it will fit an envelope. Then attach strings to the four corners and tie these strings at the back of the neck. The mask covers the nose and mouth, so that the wearer breathes through four thicknesses of gauze. A clean handkerchief is just as good as the gauze.’”
Every country has mapped its road to combating Covid-19 in its own way. In the UAE, the authorities set out to lead by example by enforcing mask-wearing almost as soon as the virus reared its ugly head. A penalty of Dh3,000 were announced for anyone spotted without a mask in public areas. It facilitated a dialogue on why masks were necessary at a time when some parts of the Western world were still debating it. In the US, for instance, a study claimed that only under a half of Americans reportedly wore masks, despite clear indications that if 95 per cent of people were to wear one, it could save 129,574 lives and possibly reduce the chances of another lockdown. Today, with a record number of hospitalisations, some states have been forced into lockdown, a situation that has prompted US President-Elect Joe Biden to announce that in the first 100 days of his office, he would make mask-wearing mandatory.
Human vanity has a way of adapting to change, and thankfully, there is a market that heeds to that inner calling. Once it fulfilled its primary purpose and the mask was ready for a makeover. And what a makeover it has had this year! From diamond-encrusted options to transparent ones to quirky masks with messages. The beauty industry was quick to heed too — contouring could wait, well-defined eyes and brows, the visible parts of a masked face, were spotlighted. The designer mask then would be the perfect accessory to complete a Covid-19-conscious look.
But could the end of the pandemic necessarily mean the era of masks will be over? An interesting perspective was offered by French designer Marine Serre who had been designing couture masks even prior to the pandemic. When asked why she deemed masks necessary in a pre-Covid-19 era, she told us, “I did it simply because big cities today are often polluted, and I thought it was good for people.”
With many Covid-19 vaccines either in final stages of trials or some even available for use, the end of the pandemic seems near. But even as 2020 becomes a chapter in history, this slice of the ‘new normal’ is likely to stay...
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